Review: Web09

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New Zealand proved that it had enough interest in the web to host not one but two conferences in as many months. Joining the ranks of Webstock was the first ever Web09. Nearly 200 turned out in Auckland for the two-day event across the 17th and 18th of April about “user experience, design and technology on the internet”. So, did this first-time conference deliver?

And Now: Let Me Open Up Photoshop

Web09 promised “a strong focus on the world of Rich Internet Applications and how these technologies can be leveraged to create powerful user experiences”. This meant talks were real-world rather than theoretical, ranging from Android and iPhone apps to developer frameworks. (See the bottom of this article for summaries of each presentation).

Image by web09

Dan Rubin: Image by web09

That said, many speakers rose to the challenge of being practical and insightful. In his talk “Designing Virtual Realism”, Dan Rubin introduced the audience to Don Norman (95% of whom had never heard of him), through a fantastic web-ish concept of ‘look and feel’: “It doesn’t do anything if we design, flat, textureless interfaces … To designers, everything is gradients and dropshadows”.

After explaining that and Norman’s ‘aesthetic-usability’ effect (“Attractive things work better”) his demonstration of using textures on a web design (“use the Offset Filter to make tiles”) was a practical anticlimax (though according to the tweets, popular with a lot of others). I’d have preferred to see him mention the word ‘affordance’ or show uses of texture in more of a UI context.

Another person to successfully wove the bigger picture into their talk was Dojo’s Dylan Shiermann. His talk on “The Open Web” was hilariously un-PC, both in his approach (“Web apps: it’s all about whose bitch you want to be”), and in his challenge to Microsoft and Adobe “Flex and Silverlight? [But] I want my tools to be able to mix with everything” (more on that later). He did match the tongue-in-cheek (”If you don’t like JavaScript that’s too bad, cos JavaScript won”) with the pragmatic (e.g. Only use CSS3 standards if they’re useful). One of Shiermann’s most thought-provoking points was on browser economics: suggesting that it’s best to aim for 50% validation, as 0% requires a lot of marketing (ala Flash or Silverlight), 90+ is nitpicky and expensive, and 100% is only possible if you built the spec (cough, cough, Flash).

Finally, keynote speaker David Karp managed to balance out theory and application with his inspiring and useful talk on online communities in relation to Tumblr. (So much so that an entire article goes over his speech).

My only gripe with the conference was that a full third of the total presentations were from main sponsors Adobe and Microsoft. Given the focus of the conference, many were appropriate (such as Microsoft’s atomised HD video streaming and Adobe Catalyst. And SpreadTweet!) but the sheer quantity was excessive. (A Windows 7 demo drew some ire in the twitterstream: “…I’m a PC guy, but what does Win7 multitouch have to do with web?”). However, there was some playful one-upmanship (”unlike [Adobe's] beta, our NYTimes reader has been out for a year”), and the conference ended with an inspired code-smackdown between the teams to make a wheel of fortune. (For the record, Microsoft was declared the winner).  Eat your own dog food, amen.

Local code

Looking at the speaker list, it consisted of a number of locals, two brave Australians, and many US webbies. (Sadly, Japanese mobile trend guru Hiroshi Yasukawa  was unable to make the conference). This was unfortunate, since the US and NZ web scenes are very different.

Image by web09

Dan Rubin and Steve Smith: Image by web09

Dan Rubin and Steve Smith’s designer-vs-developer-off presentation was a case in point. While there were a lot of heads nodding at the ‘typical’ designer or developer thoughts (my favourite: “you broke my awesome design”), given that NZ is a SME country, it was a presentation that ’spoke to the choir’. (Though I could be wrong: I’ve been told some developers left Webstock exclaiming “I finally get design!”)

In comparison, NZ-based speakers (admittedly, freelancers or from startups) tended to focus on resourcefulness. Jarrod Bishop showed how frameworks can help a designer tackle developing (he brought out an impressive show reel and even wrote a twitter application onstage), Rod Drury from Xero (NZ’s poster child for SaaS) highlighted the business need for Kiwis to use the cloud, and fellow Xero-er Phil Frelinger the use of “prototypes as specifications” with Flash.

The ‘Other Conference’

It’s not really fair to compare Web09 to NZ’s ‘other’ web conference Webstock (the latter has been going for three years), but they are different enough to be complementary. Web09 was more practical, shorter (and hey, in a different town). Having them so close together may have been a bit rough on attendees’ pockets, but other than that Web09 proved to be valuable in its own right.

The Verdict

First time conferences are never perfect – a greater variety of talks and maybe more non-US speakers would have been good- but all up a great event.

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Summary of the programme:

Day 1

Rod Drury “Working in the Cloud” : powerpointless(!) talk about how his company relied on the cloud for their offering (accounting SaaS), growth (Skype etc) and marketing (Twitter, NOT Google Adwords), and more importantly how NZ’s current web infrastructure is crippling out web potential. Drury ended with a ‘call to arms’ for the web/business community to band together to change it, through lobbying, partnerships or even self financing.

Ryan Stewart/Paul Burnett/Andrew Spaulding “Adobe Keynote”: Showcase of Flash and Flex, including Fiat EcoDrive App, and the Open Screen Project (Adobe + Nokia for multiscreens)

Dan Rubin/Steve Smith “Making the designer–developer relationship work”: highly enjoyable talk about the mental barriers designers and developers face when working with each other, acted out through a mock argument between the two. Key tips: communicate, collaborate, educate, trust. My only question was why project managers and their role were only mentioned at the end as a near afterthought (I know the talk was about designers and developers, but PMs are the glue that hold them together).

Arturo Toledo, Nigel Barker, Tim Heur Mix Essentials 09 Keynote: range of demos. Entertaining: singing auto-accompaniment software Robert Songsmith (namely hearing a designer sing!). Other demos included Photosynth Deepzoom and Sketchflow.

Image by web09

Pamela Fox: Image by web09

Pamela Fox “Red Dot Fever: Don’t Let Your Maps Catch It!”: Entertaining and informative talk (she was asked to present twice!) about how users can use Google Maplets more thoughtfully, through such techniques as filtering, avoiding the default ‘pimple’ markers, and creating custom InfoWindows. Bonus points for being able to be witty and answer any questions about JSON fired at her.

John Casasanta “MacHeist – Building great online communities”: Talk about how to engage users, and running an online store seasonally. (I didn’t see this stream, but Computerworld have done a great writeup about it).

Jarrod Bishop “Observations of a designer/developer”: local designer-developer showed some of his work and useful frameworks (e.g. Gaia and Casalib for Flash, AppEngine and Django). Suggested that Twitter is “Command prompt for the web OS” Audience participation award for writing an app onstage that showed questions tweeted to him – and fielding the responses. (“Are your glasses for function or fashion?” “Do you like pie?”)

Ryan Stewart “Next Generation of the Flash Platform”: early-beta demo of Adobe Catalyst (formerly known as Thermo), a tool to allow designers to move between visual design (Illustrator, Photoshop) and interactive design (making SWFs without having to code) more easily. Some in the audience had reservations about whether how much work Flex developers would have extending/cleaning up the code generated in Catalyst, but still looks like a useful tool for designers when it comes out (scheduled for May/June and a full release end of year) . Props to Stewart for handing a double system fail (demo-crash and wifi outage, every speakers’ nightmare).

Steve Smith “Designing Windowed Interfaces For Web Applications”: Polished and comprehensive presentation about the interfaces seen on Mobile Me and Google Maps and how to make them. Smith put forward the great concept of “think thin” when designing icons: make the icons small but with a larger breathing space/larger clickable area so that they are unobtrusive and usable . He more contentiously suggested that the hand icon should only be used on hyperlinks for consistency and perceived accuracy.

Day 2

Tim Heur “Silverlight 3 Revealed”: Showcase of Microsoft’s answer to Flash (say what you will). Amazing: a demo of atomised HD video clips. Frightening: an online version of Powerpoint, with “terrible design” to boot. Promising: Silverlight works with Google Gears (see Schiermann’s comments about Microsoft and Adobe above).

Dan Rubin “Designing Virtual Realism”: Enlightening talk, but one of two halves – the first ingeniously used the words “look and feel” (i.e look vs. feel) to show the webbie audience how they could use Don Norman’s ideas (affordances, aesthetic-usability effect) in interface design, the second then showed how to use texture on a website. Both were well done, but I preferred the first.

Image by web09

Dylan Schiermann: Image by web09

Dylan Schiermann “The Open Web”: Irreverent but useful discussion about the open web. Pragmatic points about aiming for compatibility with web specs (50% is enough to be popular), how web-apps have to decide whether they’re the “bitch” of the web or desktop applications, and that users should be cautious about using CSS3. Shiermann’s rants were part of the fun (with a lot of pokes at Adobe and Microsoft for not being open to remixing and working with other applications).

Phil Frelinger “Fake it till you make it: rapid prototyping”: Frelinger started off aggressively attacking all other forms of prototyping (e.g. “paper prototyping is not quick enough and too dirty”), but then more usefully talked through his experience over several years of prototyping with Flash. His search for the best “prototype is the spec” ended with screenflows – power-point like pages that establish the critical path, and if set up carefully can be easily built on for later testing. One other tip he gave was to make site information architecture diagrams in Flash.

Andrew Spaulding “Flash Videos for Interactivity” Another Adobe presentation (this one with demos using AfterEffects, Soundbooth and Flash CS4). Still, well presented.  Great: search for text in video (e.g. Obama speech) and auto-transcribe for US/Can/UK/Aus accents. ‘Interesting’: The Sun Page 3 Desktop Keeley. Disturbing: an Adobe version of Clippy (hmmm).

John Casasanta “It’s about quality – producing iPhone apps that kick ass”: Detailed (screen-by-screen!) account of their design process for the interface of an iphone currency converter app. Casasanta stressed the need for specialist UI designers: “Designers and programmers don’t always have the requisite UI skill”, and to work iteratively and simultaneously on visual design and UI. Not as high-level as Frelinger or Smith, but interesting to see a studio’s design process.

(Karl von Randow “Nine Months of the iPhone App Store” – I missed but video will be available soon)

Greg Amer “Approaching Android”: thorough developer-oriented (a lot of designers left the room!) demonstration of how to write applications for Google Android using Eclipse. Given that Android-enabled phones aren’t available in New Zealand, a quick tour of the UI would have been appreciated (though I did get to try one out after the talk).

David Karp “Online Communities”: Engaging and inspiring discussion based on his experience of running Tumblr. See full post for more details.

Vicky Teinaki

An England-based Kiwi, Vicky is doing a PhD at Northumbria University into how designers can better talk about touch and products. When not researching or keeping Johnny Holland running, she does the odd bit of web development, pretends her TV licence money goes only to Steven Moffatt shows, and tweets prolifically about all of the above as @vickytnz.

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